Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Exceptional Sinaloan Seafood Chef of Mariscos Chente (Mar Vista) (or, Home of the Buttery Goodness that is Pescado Zarandeado!)

One of the best things that has happened to me since I started to write about food is the ability to learn and share with all the great like-minded food lovers across the world. Getting recommendations about new restaurants is nice and if you're willing to explore and be open-minded, it can open up so many interesting and/or different culinary experiences.

Such is the case with the newly opened Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista. From the strong recommendation from my amigo, streetgourmetla, I knew this was a place I had to try at least once. After the great recommendation about Breed Street, I figured another recommendation from streetgourmetla could only bring me more happiness. :)

Mariscos Chente is the result of a husband and wife team of Chef Sergio Penuelas and Maria Angie Penuelas (and her family). Chef Sergio is from Sinaloa and Maria is from Nayarit, and the menu is a reflection of both states.

Walking into the restaurant for the first time reveals a simple, humble establishment, sparse and a bit bare bones, but the warm greeting from Maria puts us at ease. The menu is all about a celebration of seafood with a good emphasis on Camarones (Shrimp) dishes. The restaurant sources all their seafood from Mazatlan, Mexico, which is a big reason for their success.

The first dish to arrive is the Camarones Checo, which is named after Chef Sergio (his nickname), since he created this dish when they were putting together the menu. Essentially a plate of twelve fresh medium-sized Shrimp from Mazatlan, sauteed in Garlic, Butter and a proprietary spice blend. The Shrimp are absolutely delicious with the aromatic Garlic and Butter, with just a slight touch of spiciness (heat) that gives it an enticing quality without making you break into a sweat. :)

The key to this dish (and all the dishes) is the freshness of the seafood. It may seem obvious and expected in higher end restaurants, but for a small mom-and-pop eatery like this, eating Mazatlan Shrimp that actually tastes *fresh* and clean is something not as common as one would hope. I've recently had some Shrimp dishes at a few local establishments (some in a slightly more upscale setting), and the Shrimp tasted like they were in the freezer a few days too long, or some were slightly water-logged and mushy. Expectations should be managed, however, as this isn't on the level of Live Santa Barbara Prawns taken out of the tank, beheaded, and served to you within seconds (ala Urasawa), but it's still fresh without any of the brininess that comes from too many days of sitting around.

And while this dish is excellent, our next dish is something that's worth celebrating: Pescado Zarandeado using Robalo (Special Open-Grilled Snook). The Snook is also from Mazatlan and Chef Sergio had just finished installing the special grill to cook it on the day of our first visit.

After about 20 - 25 minutes, the Pescado Zarandeado is ready and brought out: It's rustic, cooked beautifully and served with 2 bowls of simple looking condiments that turn out to be pure magic.

Taking a bite of the Mazatlan Snook reveals a beautiful, lightly smoky fish, *so* fresh and moist! Chef Sergio uses a recipe he's developed over the years, with a Chipotle base, but it's far from spicy; just simply satisfying in every way. But then the dish gets elevated even higher with the two accompaniments: Try the fish with a bit of the freshly-stewed Tomato and Jalapeno Salsa, served warm and made fresh that morning. I don't have a high tolerance for spiciness, but this fresh Tomato and Jalapeno Salsa has just the right amount of heat, is wonderfully fragrant, and complements the Pescado Zarandeado perfectly.

And while that condiment is the perfect match, the next bowl of goodness is even better (and it's brilliant in concept): Caramelized Onions and Butter. :) It may sound mundane but taking a bit of the fresh, moist open-grilled Snook fish, and adding some of the Caramelized Onion and Butter mixture turns the dish into an absolutely luscious flavor explosion that is indescribable in many ways: I smiled so broadly taking the first bite, and for that instant, all was right with the world. Simply outstanding! (^_^)

On another visit, I bring along a Mexican Hound who is curious about this Sinaloan-Nayarit restaurant. We start off with another excellent recommendation by streetgourmetla, Camarones Aguachiles, which are Shrimp Marinated with Lime and a fresh, house-made Jalapeno Salsa.

Like before, today's Mazatlan Shrimp are just excellent: *Fresh* with a good firmness but suppleness, it's slightly tart, but then reveals a layer of a sweet, good brininess. Delicious! :)

The next dish is another wonderful recommendation from a food-lover: Dommy! was ecstatic about their Coctel de Camarones y Pulpo (Shrimp and Octopus Cocktail), especially about the Octopus. It's really hard to find well-prepared Octopus that *isn't* rubbery, or too tough, or too soft (overbrined / cooked), and Chef Sergio's version is everything that Dommy! said and more: The Octopus is pliable, showing off its inherent textural qualities, but tender with each bite.

There's a natural sweetness, that smells of the high seas (in a good way), and very fresh. Maria notes that Mariscos Chente's version is served simply, and encourages the customers to add however much additional heat (with 4-5 different sources of spiciness to choose from), lime and other condiments that they feel like. We squeeze in the additional Lime, a bit of heat from 2 different hot sauces and a dash of Ketchup and it's perfect. :)

And their Camarones a la Pimienta continues the trend of excellent dishes, with their Mazatlan Shrimp Sauteed in Black Pepper and Butter.

Like before, it sounds so deceptively simple, but the results are just wonderful: The Shrimp are fresh and sweet, and the Black Pepper and Butter combination results in a dish even more enjoyable than the Camarones Checo I had on my first visit. Very good!

The spiciest dish on their menu is their Camarones a la Diabla, which are Shrimp sauteed in a base sauce of a certain type of Nuevo Mexico Chili that Chef Sergio grills, dries, and then grinds up and combines with delicious Butter. :)

While initially worried that this might ruin me with my low tolerance for spicy heat, the freshness of the Nuevo Mexico Chili sauce (which is softened by the Butter) makes for a brilliant, spicy seafood dish that's just downright addicting! :) And it's much less spicy than, say, a good, hardcore Szechuan or Hunan dish.

On another visit, we try their Camarones a la Cucaracha, which are their Mazatlan Shrimp pan-fried to a crisp, sauteed with a Salsa Inglesa base, essentially a Worcestershire Sauce.

The Shrimp are pan fried at such a high temperature that their shells are crunchy, brittle and deliciously edible with the rest of the Shrimp! :) The Salsa Inglesa / Worcestershire base is a bit strange at first, but after a few bites, it works.

Our final dish we try on this visit is their Camarones Borrechos which reflects more of Chef Sergio Penuelas' mastery of flavor combinations that fit the fresh Mazatlan seafood to a tee: Shrimp Sauteed with Tequila, Cilantro, Garlic and Butter.

This is probably *the* most aromatic dish at Mariscos Chente: You can smell the beautiful aroma of cooked / reduced Tequila along with the the Garlic and Cilantro. It engages your sense of smell immediately and makes the dish that much more enjoyable before you even take the first bite.

And then taking the first bite brings forth a taste that is bright and brilliant in so many ways: So aromatic, with a touch of the herbal with the Cilantro, and the Garlic and Butter serve as the final components to bring the whole dish together. Delicious.

This is a simple, mom-and-pop restaurant, so service is to be expected, with you waving down Maria (who runs the front of the house) if you need anything. Prices are noteworthy for the quality of the ingredients you get, with all their Camarones (Shrimp) plates running $11, and their Pescado Zarandeado costing $18 per kilogram. The good news is that Mariscos Chente has finally finished installing their Credit Card machine (so they take Credit Card or Cash now).

Mariscos Chente (Mar Vista) is a wonderful Sinaloa / Nayarit specialty restaurant, serving up fresh and simple seafood dishes that are understated, but simply satisfying in so many ways. Chef Sergio Penuelas is a true artisan at creating down-to-earth, rustic seafood dishes, with pretty much the entire menu being hits depending on your preference. I'm still dreaming of their mouth-watering Camarones Borrechos and Pescado Zarandeado amongst the many other enjoyable offerings. With the amount of excitement that Mariscos Chente has generated, it should be noted that this isn't the second coming of Urasawa or Providence - both restaurants have Master Chefs that serve top quality seafood (much of which is live or caught within a day or two of serving) - but for a hole-in-the-wall, family restaurant in Mar Vista, getting fresh seafood brought in from Mazatlan this is noteworthy quality and value. Very recommended.

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0)

Mariscos Chente (Mar Vista)
4532 S. Centinela Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 390-9241

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Fri - Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.


DL said...

Good call (as always)Exile. It's funny because I just went here for lunch yesterday after randomly running into streetgourmetla's same post. I'm not so sure you are correct about Chente being new though because I've seen the sign there for years (perhaps different owners?) and had been wanting to check it out forever. Does anyone else know about this? I tried the Shrimp Sautéed in Black Pepper and Butter and enjoyed it as well. Looking at your pictures I noticed that my rice was served differently yesterday...and was much more heavily seasoned (with what I have no idea, but it was damn good) I wonder if they are experimenting with styles? Thanks for digging into their menu for all of us, I'm gonna have to go back and try out the Zarandeado!!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi DL,

Thanks. :) I'm glad you enjoyed your meal there as well.

As for how long they've been there, not sure, but streetgourmetla knew the owners from their original Inglewood location and this Mar Vista location is one that they moved to. Now that I think about it, I think street mentioned there being a fire or something and a rebuild, so maybe they moved back in now?

Thanks for the info on the new rice! I'll have to try that the next time I visit. :)

And definitely let me know how the Zarandeado turns out for you. :)

Mike said...

Wow Ken, my cholesterol shot up to 500 just looking at those pictures! Sounds really tasty. We would love to try this the next time we're in SoCal. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Mike,

Hehehe, thanks. :) It's a good place. Yes, hopefully you can try it the next time you visit So Cal. :)

glutster said...

We are witnessing the unraveling of people finally noticing regional Mexican cuisine in L.A!

Grilled coastal stuff is only the start...

Noah said...

Very nice. Now I'm hungry-- and I just ate lunch.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Yes, hopefully more and more good regional specialty restaurants appear in L.A. (or are made more well-known). :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thank you. :) Let me know if you're up for trying this place (or if you try their Pescado Zarandeado, let me know what you think :).

Family Kennison Hochman said...

First time reading your site and great job with Mariscos Chente. What a wonderful restaurant. There are three locations total. One is in Gardena, one in Inglewood and now this one on the West Side which is technically in an area called Del Rey (not Mar Vista). The Del Rey location opened 3 years ago but due to a fire in the kitchen they closed and reopened in January of 2009. All three restaurants are run by the same family. All are delicious! Keep up the good work!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Family Kennison Hochman,

Thanks. :) Yah, I've heard of the other 2 locations, I'll have to try those the next time I'm in the area. Thanks again.

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